Ride Skills: Better body position

Words Rory Bingham, Onward MTB Coaching

Images Rory Bingham and Blake Pickup

For the first instalment of these Ride Skills articles, we’re going to look at how to create a more stable, centred and mobile rider through better body positioning. This will improve your control in trickier sections and, over time, build confidence.

What we’ll focus on is creating a more stable, centred and mobile rider through better rider positioning. This will improve the rider’s control to more successfully tackle trickier sections and, over time, build confidence. I’ll also do my bit in the never-ending battle of trying to defeat an arch nemesisthe antiquated theory of leaning back for going downhill.

We’ll aim this at the type of terrain you’ll come across on your average blue trail—particularly sections that may become rougher or steeper, where many riders instinctively want to lean back.  

Photo: Blake Pickup
Body Position Basics 

Let’s look at the concepts behind our position on the bike: 

Stability: Your ability to resist forces from the trail. A lower centre of mass and wider position will improve our stability on the bike.  

Mobility for control and balance: Mobility helps us balance and manage instability. It’s fundamental to allowing the bike to move freely underneath us. Our bodies need to be free to move so we can interact with and control the bike. Cornering body movements are good examples of this—rotating hips, bending elbows, dropping shoulders—none of these are possible without mobility.  

Centred fore/aft: Having your mass in the middle of the bike creates even pressure on the front and rear wheels. This will produce predictable grip, effective braking and better connection to the business end of the bike—the front wheel. Becoming aware of what truly centred feels like is an essential component to adjusting your fore/aft position on the bike. 

My Observations 

Most commonly, I see riders in a rearward-biased position, hesitant of being truly connected to the front of the bike.  

In this position, riders experience a lot of tension and strain through the quads, hands and arms, reducing mobility. This produces a stiff, defensive rider, with compromised control over the front of the bike when you need it most—in steeps, steps and corners.

The front of the bike very much wears the pants in the frontrear relationship.

The front of the bike very much wears the pants in the front-rear relationship. For example, direction control inputs mostly go through the handlebars and more powerful braking is done at the front. Becoming friends with the front of the bike is essential to getting better at riding downhill, and becoming more central on the bike more often is a key step in achieving better control. 

 

Photo: Blake Pickup
Neutral vs Ready Positions 

So, what position should we be in? Most, if not all my coaching involves some sort of body position chat. So, let’s start with the very basics. 

Enter the ‘neutral’ and ‘ready’ positions. These are ubiquitous in mountain bike coaching and give a broad framework for vertically adjusting our position on the bike to find more stability, mobility and control. 

Biomechanical reference points are your friend. Picking body parts to focus your awareness on are great because you know where they are (hopefully), so look out for these.

Photo: Rory Bingham
‘Neutral’ / Default Position 
  • Heels dropped with a slight bend in the knee. The pedals are almost in the middle of the shoe, not under your ball (flat pedals). 
  • Legs support the rider’s mass. Stand up! 
  • Hips over feet, rider’s centre of mass centred between front and rear of the bike.  
  • Chin over stem. 
  • The upper body is relaxed and mobile with light and consistent pressure through the palms. 

 

Riders rarely spend enough time refining this position, or they’re reluctant to use it on the trail.  

It’s energy efficient because it uses our bone structure to support our mass and requires very little effort to hold. Technically, the tallness of this position means you’re less stable (higher Centre of Mass—COM), with less mobility (you’re at the top of your arms/legs’ ‘travel’), but don’t underestimate its utility and value on the trail.  

If you’re doing it right, you should feel like you could unwrap all of your fingers from the bars and have little effect on the pressure going through your palms onto your grips. There should be little change to the rest of your body position too, and no change to the amount of muscle tension or effort to hold yourself upright. This is a great litmus test for how centred you really are (do it in a safe place!).  

We want our legs to be supporting our mass. There’s a reason we don’t walk on our hands—our arms aren’t designed to carry our weight for extended periods. Drop those heels to create a straighter, stronger leg to effectively support yourself. 

Drop those heels to create a straighter, stronger leg to effectively support yourself.

Getting used to truly supporting yourself with your legs is a game changer for becoming stronger, more mobile and powerful on the bike. It’s important for acquiring more advanced skills like actively creating and releasing pressure through the bike (pumping). You can also free up more of your upper body for direction control movements and managing impacts.  

Many top riders will primarily drive the bike with their lower body, so developing this biomechanical pathway is a good step to focus on.  

For flat pedal riders, this position is often compromised by standing on the ball of their foot too much—this isn’t a strong base of support, so get the pedal more centralised under your foot (you’ll engage more of your larger muscle groups).  

Photo: Rory Bingham
‘Ready’/Attack Position—Getting Lower 
  • Hips high, chest low.  
  • Elbows come up and out to a naturally stronger position—not too tucked, not too forward.  
  • Chin remains over the stem to keep mass centred.  
  • Knee flexes a little more, heels remain dropped, same foot position.  
  • The rider is still supporting their weight with their legs. 

 

Getting lower can help find more stability and mobility. We’re more mobile because we can move our limbs and body in multiple directions—up, down, side to side, twisting, fore, aft, etc. This opens the door to improving bike-body separation, putting more advanced skills like leaning the bike and body rotation on the menu. We’re more stable as we’ve lowered our COM. 

Focus on hinging at the hips in a bowing movement to bring your chest closer to the bike first, then bend the knees if needed.

The key is not sinking down at the hips and ending up perched over the rear axle. This happens with overly bent knees, and you end up crouching behind the handlebars. This loses our connection to the front wheel as we’ve taken too much weight away from it.  

Only bend your knees as much as you need to—remember, we want the strength and support a straighter leg gives us. Focus on hinging at the hips in a bowing movement to bring your chest closer to the bike first, then bend the knees if needed. You may need to fractionally shift your hips rearward (emphasis on fractionally), so you don’t end up way too forward—remember to keep your chin over the stem to stay centred and connected to the front wheel.

Adjusting Between Positions 

When should you get lower, how much do you move when you adjust, and how often should you be adjusting? 

When depends on a few factors: 

  • Terrain: Certain features or trail types will demand more stability or mobility from our position. Lots of support, flat and smooth? Stay taller. Little support, rough or steep? Get lower.  
  • Efficiency: Getting lower on the bike puts more load through our muscles, leading to fatigue over time—a tired rider isn’t going to be stable, or mobile. 

 

How much is a little more complex and becomes more important at higher levels of riding. Once you can hold a position and smoothly transition between positions, start to think of the neutral and ready positions on a scale of one to 10: Neutral (10) being tallest, ready (one) being lowest. You now have eight other positions on that same scale to apply to different situations.  

Choosing how much you move depends on how much extra stability and mobility you need. This comes down to responding to the trail: big impacts through a nasty rock garden? Get lower; Lots of little high frequency bumps? Save a bit of energy by not getting quite as low.  

The how often aspect mainly comes down to that concept of efficiency—too much is wasteful, too little is robotic. I’d encourage you to start moving more and use this as a tactic to interact more intentionally with the trail to bring more fluidity to your riding. The bottom line—our position should be a constant continuum of movement, because that’s exactly what a mountain bike trail is. 

“Our position should be a constant continuum of movement, because that’s exactly what a mountain bike trail is.

Examples—Back Seat vs Driving Seat 

To demonstrate these positions, here are two ways of riding a section on a grade 4 Queenstown trail. The gradient steepens on entry, the surface is a web of roots and cobble stones with a one-foot-high rock-ledge obstacle that immediately spits you into a right-hand berm.  

It’s a classic example of a place where a rider can end up too rearward. We want to start in more of a ready position to stay centred and connected to the front wheel and maintain stability and mobility throughout.  

‘Lean back when it goes downhill so you don’t go over the handlebars’. In the early 90s this was perhaps sound advice when bikes were steep and short. Not the case anymore. Stop it. I mean it. 

Getting rearward on the bike will straighten your arms and put all your weight over the back wheel, eliminating your connection to the front of the bike. This will:  

  • Lock out your arms so steering and leaning the bike is more difficult.  
  • Reduce steering traction.  
  • Make your front brake ineffective. 
  • Reduce mobility so you can’t absorb bumps. 

 

You can see from the pictures above, that I ride very defensively through the section. I don’t have any mobility to absorb the bumps and I arrive at the corner with very little connection to the front wheel (where I need it most).  

Don’t get back, get low  

In this position, I have mobility in my position to deal with the bumps and arrive at the corner with plenty of control through the front of the bike. I can use my arms to place the front wheel down over the rock ledge quickly so I can regain front wheel traction. I’m also ideally positioned to press with my legs through the berm and generate some exit speed. 

I could start generating some pace here and feel good about it, because I’m more stable and have more mobility (or ways to move) on offer. It takes a lot of time to get comfortable with being in a position like this. If this is new to you, you will feel like you’re forward on the bike, but all we’re doing is bringing you to the centre.  

It feels counter-intuitive to get lower and closer to the scary bits, but it produces infinitely more control than shifting yourself back and away.  

Homework Assignments 

Find an open space and see how it feels to try some of the positions in this article. Once you’re in a position, explore within it – for example, see how it feels to move your body fore/aft in the ready position and see how it affects different muscle groups. This will help to bring awareness of what centre feels like, as it requires the least amount of muscular effort to hold.  

Once you’re comfortable, consistent and correct with the positions, take them to the trail and experiment with them. Here’s some things you can try:  

  • Compare and contrast. Ride a familiar trail in only the neutral or ready position. See where they feel good, and where they feel bad – this is excellent experiential learning. For example, you might highlight that the ready feels good in corners, but energy zapping on long flat sections. Bingo.  
  • Ride rigid vs mobile. Don’t adjust at all (be static), then adjust constantly (be very dynamic). See which one feels better and be aware if there are any downsides – e.g constantly moving can be fatiguing.  
  • Choose one simple thing to zone in on, like ‘chin over stem’. Focus all your awareness on this to drive your learning. It might sound easy but try it on a double black trail and get back to me.  
  • Heavy feet, light hands. This is great for engaging the legs for support and relaxing the arms/shoulders in any position. Adjust your position on the bike so you achieve light consistent pressure through your palms – too far back and you’ll be gripping tightly with your fingers, too far forward and you’ll notice excessive palm pressure.  

 

Enjoy! 

I’m Rory, head coach and owner of Onward MTB Coaching. I’ve been coaching for 8 years and a passionate rider/massive bike nerd for 20+ years. Based in Queenstown, we strive to offer the finest coaching experience in New Zealand. We’re proud to work with elite to beginner riders of all ages to improve their riding to meet their goals. I am sponsored by POC Sports and RAAW Mountain Bikes.

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